Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) (W)

IMDb / Ebert
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch

So much of Coffee and Cigarettes is dull, uninspired and near worthless, with only some beautiful black and white cinematography propping it up. Certain segments, however, are quite brilliant – patches of genuine greatness amongst a whole lot of nothing. (When I think about it, you could probably say the same thing about Jarmusch’s recent Broken Flowers). The segments in question are entitled ‘Cousins’ and ‘Cousins?’, and rather than relying on the beauty of their images to make them remotely worthwhile, they would have been just as intriguing had they been shot on low-definition digital video or Super 8 film.

‘Cousins’ stars Cate Blanchett as herself and as her fictional cousin Shelly. The character Cate is a famous movie star, back home in Australia on the press junket, and she’s taking a few minutes off to see her cousin, Shelly. Shelly is stereotypical Aussie white trash with a broad accent and a straight-ahead way of thinking, which is not without insight. The way they interact is such a treat to watch, because they behave exactly like real people, even though they are caricatures.

Shelly’s behaviour is cold and somewhat cynical, but it is totally genuine. With her, we never get the feeling she’s concealing anything, or putting on a mask to satisfy the company she’s with. She lies, but she does it out of boredom, not malice. Cate, on the other hand, is more or less just going through the motions, smiling widely and emptily while she searches for words to fill the silences. She wants to engage in equal conversation with this person, her cousin, but she quickly loses the required effort to make it happen. She betrays her lack of interest by getting names wrong. They’re so different, what would they have to talk about?

Their stilted conversation is so divine and rare in cinema, and extremely unusual in a film in which most characters seem like just that – characters, there to speak cool or contrived dialogue, not to come across like real people. I don’t know how improvised it is, but going by the rest of the film, I’ll give a little credit to Jarmusch and a lot to Blanchett. She is so good here – not only did I forget she was playing two parts, but I forgot she was playing a version of herself. And she is exceptionally beautiful, but that goes without saying.

‘Cousins?’ stars Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, two fine British actors. Molina has broken into the US market and put down roots in L. A.; Coogan only visits the States when he has to, despite a growing profile there and a desire to become more famous. They have obviously never met before, and like the cousins of the earlier segment, they engage in awkward conversation that never really has a chance to get going. Molina is too friendly and genuine, and Coogan too guarded and cynical.

The difference here is that this is a meeting that was set up (by Molina) for a reason, and when that information is revealed, Coogan becomes even more guarded and disinterested, and we wait for the painful episode to end, knowing that they’ll probably never see each other again. But then the dynamic changes again, and suddenly the tables are turned. Being such good actors, Molina and Coogan totally nail it. I’ve admired the work of both of them in anything they’ve done, as comic and dramatic actors, and never for a moment does this episode feel forced or artificial. It doesn’t quite have the great layers of subtext that ‘Cousins’ has – this is more of a directly told story – but it is still great.

The others… well, the Iggy Pop/Tom Waits one was pretty good, and the one with GZA, RZA and Bill Murray was entertaining, as was the one with the White Stripes, but each of these suffered from trying too hard to be cool. The rest were all bores, and only those two discussed earlier transcended the screen to really leave an impression. They are so excellent that you should see Coffee and Cigarettes just for them, a pair of diamonds amongst a collection of dullards. I’m not motivated to see any more Jarmusch in a hurry, even though many say he is great; most of what I’ve seen seems to have focused on feeling and looking really hip, forgetting to actually mean anything of consequence. I’ll hopefully be proved wrong.

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